By Heritage staff
First in a series marking Black History Month
Raleigh C. Bledsoe, MD, a radiologist whose 32-year career with the Southern California Permanente Medical Group began at the South Bay Medical Center (Harbor City), accomplished a series of trailblazing firsts for his country, his profession and the advancement of black physicians.
Raymond Kay, MD, co-founder of Kaiser Permanente in Southern California, recalled bristling when the International Longshore and Warehouse Union urged SCPMG in the early 1950s to hire black physicians.
“I remember one big union (the ILWU) got me up in front of their board, and they said ‘We don’t think you’re getting enough black doctors,’ said Kay, the SCPMG medical director.
“I said, ‘If your union in any way wants to invade our right to pick the doctors on their qualities, then I’d rather you pull your union out of the health plan.’ ”
Permanente doctors hired for qualifications
Kay was open to diversity on the medical staff but felt the selection should be made on merit.
“I really wanted to pick the doctors on their qualities . . . I didn’t want to put us in a position where (people) would say we were black or Jewish or Korean or something. So I tried to keep a good balance. But I never took a doctor unless I thought he was of the caliber I wanted. And then I didn’t care what his or her color was.”
The impetus for more black doctors came from Bill Chester, civil rights and community leader for the ILWU. Chester campaigned for more blacks in all industries during the 1950s and 1960s.
“We went into every aspect of community life. We encouraged our black members to deposit with savings and loan associations run by blacks. The union did business with Kaiser Hospital, so we met with Edgar Kaiser and said (that) we wanted some black interns and black physicians on the staff,” said Chester in his 2004 ILWU oral history.
First certified black radiologist west of Rockies
In 1954, Harbor City Medical Director Ira “Buck” Wallin, MD, hired Dr. Bledsoe, who became the first black physician on the SCPMG medical staff and the first board-certified black radiologist west of the Rockies.
Dr. Bledsoe had earned an excellent professional reputation and came with enthusiastic references from medical school faculty and colleagues. According to a 1997 obituary published in “Radiology” magazine, Bledsoe had already achieved a distinguished career in the U.S. Army while completing his medical education and training.
A native of Texas, Bledsoe attended Compton College and the University of California, Los Angeles. While serving in the Army, Bledsoe earned his medical degree from Meharry Medical College in Tennessee.
After interning at Los Angeles County General Hospital, Bledsoe served as a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps from 1945-48 and was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. He later completed his residency in radiology at the University of Southern California.
Although Dr. Bledsoe had the support of his Permanente colleagues, it took some time before Harbor City’s members accepted a black physician. Dr. Wallin was warned that people would be upset: “We had longshoremen that stormed out. I got a letter threatening my wife,” he said.
Pete Moore, ILWU regional director in the 1950s, remembers one longshoreman complaining to him about his wife seeing a black doctor at Harbor City. “He didn’t want her to be treated by a black doctor. I told him, ‘hey, get out of the plan. Join the alternative plan,’ and he did.”
So when it came time for Bledsoe to become a partner in the medical group, the battle lines were drawn. Bledsoe was well-liked and competent.
“The doctors saw that if Bledsoe could be kept out because of his race, they were going to be very disappointed in the medical group,” Wallin said. “I had a meeting with Lynn Solomon, MD, Jim Roorda, MD, Walter Cohen, MD, Billie Moore, MD, Harry Shragg, MD, and the other doctors.
“I told Ray (Kay), ‘You’d better talk to us. You have a chance of losing about two-thirds of us. I’m going to submit Raleigh Bledsoe’s name for partnership.’ ”
Bledsoe makes partner
Bledsoe made partner, and he stayed more than 30 years in the SCPMG. In 1965, he transferred to the newly opened West Los Angeles Medical Center and served as chief of Radiology until his retirement in 1986, becoming one of the longest serving chiefs in Kaiser Permanente’s history.
During his career, Dr. Bledsoe designed the radiology units for three hospitals and eight clinics, including the selection of equipment, development of policies and procedures, and the hiring of the radiologists.
Harry Shragg, MD, a colleague of Bledsoe, fondly recalled memories of his friend in a 1986 oral history: “Raleigh was probably, as a diagnostic radiologist, as fine a radiologist as I’ve ever seen and known . . . He was always on the cutting edge of radiology, a constant student, a teacher, a kind man whom anybody would be proud to know.”
Dr. Bledsoe passed away in 1996.
Michael Pucci, senior communications consultant in the Kaiser Permanente Hawaii Region Brand Communications and Public Relations Department, and Heritage writer Ginny McPartland collaborated on this story. The article was first published in the South Bay (Harbor City) service area’s 60th Anniversary book in 2010.
Editor’s note: Kaiser Permanente physician and educator Martin Shearn and his wife Lori traveled to Brazil in 1973 where Dr. Shearn served as chief of staff for the SS Hope hospital ship docked in Maceio, a poor coastal community in Northeast Brazil.
By Lori Shearn
Fourth in a series
Before Project Hope, outpatient clinics didn’t exist in Maceio. The mother-baby clinic set up by Hope (in 1973) was a miracle. Ordinary people in this community had no health care at all, and no place to go for vaccinations or health information.
In a poor area where no care facility had existed, Hope staff found an old wooden building to serve as a clinic for new mothers whose babies were not thriving. There, a group of local women were trained to act as educators. They were gathered from the community and carefully screened, mostly for their willingness to learn and to work hard.
The women were shown what happens on their hands when they are not washed properly and germs are allowed to grow. They were shown graphically that flies contaminate food and open sores and that it’s necessary to keep wounds sterile.
The “nurses” became the health educators of their community, explaining to mothers the risks of putting a pacifier back in the baby’s mouth after it has fallen to the dirty floor. They were amazed at how many diseases can be prevented by vaccination and inoculation.
Many of the children were suffering from a type of malnutrition called kwashiorkor that occurs when there’s not enough protein in the diet. One of the symptoms is a protruding belly.
The mothers learned about better nutrition and how creatures like mollusks and snails in the waters surrounding them could provide the protein their children needed. The mothers were instructed how to prepare the food and the babies magically began to thrive.
Half-built structure converted to outpatient clinic
The crowning achievement of the Hope mission to Maceio was the incredible discovery of a half-finished medical building and its conversion to an outpatient clinic. The project, meant to replace the inadequate and overcrowded community hospital, had been abandoned when federal funds ran out three years before we arrived.
When Hope staff toured the partially completed health care facility, the buildings were filthy and overgrown with mold and weeds. Amazingly, there were 75 finished rooms, beautifully tiled, and with a large dose of imagination and a grand push of energy, the university was convinced that this kernel of a new medical center could somehow be realized.
As soon as possible, Hope put the skeleton of a building into operation. It was cleaned and painted and equipment was gathered from supplies around town.
After the opening of this outpatient clinic, patients were assigned numbers, and if they couldn’t be seen one day, they could come back the next. A patient’s problem was evaluated by a doctor who decided whether or not the patient should be admitted, treated in the clinic or sent home.
Parents brought their children to see the doctor, even though they had never had such an experience before. They were taught how much they themselves could improve their own well-being even without additional money, using only the tools readily available.
Even though changes came very slowly, the Maceio community responded, and progress could be seen. When their prescriptions for various ailments ran out, the patient loads suddenly increased and they lined up around the block to see the doctor.
One of the diseases the Hope staff treated was Chagas, an infection found in Latin America that is spread by a parasite called a kissing bug. Dr. Shearn was inspired to write a poem about the disease and it was published in the “Annals of Internal Medicine” in the October 1973 edition.
Thoughts on Chagas Disease
In Brazil there are regions with thousands of miles
Of jungles and swamplands and fierce crocodiles
There are boa constrictors of hideous mood
And piranhas who look upon humans as food
But passions exist here quite different from fright
Abetted by kissing bugs active at night
The sleeper is sought and the kiss is bestowed
Then the insect retreats to its nightly abode
The encounter is brief but it quickly erects
A subtle arrangement with complex effects
The seal of that union is destined to start
A lasting relationship deep in the heart
The clinic continued after the ship left. The auxiliaries who became the nurses at this clinic were carefully trained to read numbers, to take temperatures, to read scales for weighing babies. They also gave shots and inserted IVs when necessary. They were carefully supervised until they were able to function confidently alone.
Hope’s success was not lost on our Brazilian hosts. The new clinic opened with great fanfare and heavy local and national publicity.
Hope made a big difference in improving the health of this community.
Editor’s note: Dr. Martin Shearn, who passed away in 2002 after many years as a Permanente physician, added to Lori’s insights in a letter to friends dated Sept. 10, 1973:
“The work has been the most interesting and worthwhile that I’ve done. The program has come along well. The level of education has risen measurably and concepts have been accepted. We are introducing a Kaiser-type ambulatory (care) replete with multiphasic type screening for the indigent.
“The new ambulatory structure started several years ago will be ready for occupancy next month so we will have a little time to work there before we leave.
There will be a relatively large (30 people) land-based program left behind that will include among others a medical director, biostatistician, and epidemiologist. Should be able to define the population with respect to health, get some patient profiles, decent medical records and get busy with vaccinations, nutritional advice and medical care.”
Next time: Children suffering years with birth defects get lifesaving surgery aboard SS Hope.
It’s “that time of year” again when physicians and other health care professionals are strongly encouraging members to get flu shots. It’s the sort of common-sense public health education message that Kaiser Permanente has been promoting for decades. Here are some examples from previous member newsletters – 1951, 1960, and 1974; to see the current campaign, click on this video link. And join the Vacci Nation!
Short link to this item: http://bit.ly/1ftLA1i
By Lincoln Cushing
Second in a series
In 1941, before the United States entered World War II, Henry J. Kaiser was already building cargo ships for the British war effort. Early on, labor jurisdiction issues loomed large, and Kaiser’s labor man Harry F. Morton had his hands full.
Before the shipyards opened, Kaiser representatives signed a closed-shop agreement with American Federation of Labor-affiliated unions and hired a handful of workers; when the yards began full operation, the thousands of new workers were required to join the AFL.
Because many of them were already members of Congress of Industrial Organizations-affiliated unions, they were subsequently discharged. The CIO filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board.In a letter dated Dec. 6, 1941, the day before Pearl Harbor, Morton reported to Kaiser’s shipyard managers, Edgar Kaiser in Portland and Clay Bedford in Richmond, on this issue.
The “industry” side proposed a formal proportional allocation among the unions for journeyman jobs for welders, but this did not sit well with the nine AFL unions whose members included welders.
Eventually a compromise was reached in which welders in the shipyards would not be required to maintain membership in more than one union and that employment would not require purchase of a permit fee.[i]
Morton aligns with the AFL in closed shop fight
When the jurisdiction wars erupted again in 1943, Morton fought alongside the shipyard craft unions and received a landmark favorable ruling.
The U.S. government had charged that the Kaiser shipyards in Portland had acted unfairly in favoring the American Federation of Labor over the emerging, competitive, and radical CIO.
This time Congress’ help was called upon and passed what is known as the “Frey amendment” (named for head of the AFL Metal Trades Department, John P. Frey). The CIO lost on a technicality.
This ruling was crucial because it meant Henry J. Kaiser could run a closed shop in his shipyards, and production of ships for the war would not be jeopardized by struggles over workforce representation.
Morton read his victory telegram at a Metal Trades conference and declared: “And thus endeth another chapter in the history of the attempt of the National Labor Relations Board to break the union shop.”[ii]
Labor man tapped for aircraft plant
In late 1943 Morton moved back East as vice president of Industrial Relations for the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation. Brewster was manufacturing F3A-1 Corsair[iii] fighters, but had been ineptly run.
As a favor to the Navy Secretary, Kaiser agreed to try and turn the company around. Despite cost-cutting and improved output, Kaiser was delighted to turn the plant back over to Navy officials in May 1944.
While at Brewster, Morton continued to advise Kaiser on labor. After reviewing a report by Industrial Relations Counselors[iv] on the then-new steel mill in Fontana, Calif., Morton sent a telegram to Kaiser executive Eugene Trefethen Jr.:
“I did not advocate a closed shop provision for the Fontana contract, but I did object to IRC’s recommendation that “. . . the company resist any demands of the union for a closed shop or union shop contract.”
“This is so foreign to all of Mr. Kaiser’s fundamental beliefs and public utterances that I could not let it go unchallenged . . . I violently disagree with the fundamental approach of IRC to labor problems.
“It is the approach of AT&T, Bethlehem, DuPont, G.E., General Motors, Standard [Oil] of New Jersey, U.S. Rubber and U.S. Steel, but not of Kaiser.
“It is my conviction that a large part of Brewster’s trouble is the result of IRC thinking and approach, and I am confident that what is needed is less IRC and more Kaiser thinking and approach in labor relations.[v]
Morton active after war ends
In early 1945, Morton briefed Kaiser on a meeting he’d had with Charles MacGowan, president of the Boilermakers union, a group that was influential (and controversial) in Kaiser’s wartime shipyards.
The subject was the merger of the American Federal of Labor with the Congress of Industrial Organizations. MacGowan opposed the merger. Morton advised Kaiser:
“I pass these suggestions on to you for what they may be worth. Personally, I don’t believe they are worth much, as [Philip] Murray and [William] Green had agreed to this once before and the agreement was later repudiated.[vi]
Green (AF of L) and Murray (CIO) both died in 1952; it would not be until 1955 that the two labor organizations would merge under the leadership of George Meany. The AFL-CIO Murray-Green award received by Henry J. Kaiser in 1965 was named for them.
The last known records of Morton’s career reflect his negotiation with employees at the Kaiser-Frazer automobile plant. One of the provisions of the recently enacted landmark Taft-Hartley Act removed any legal obligation to bargain with foremen; Morton felt that they should keep faith with the foremen, and the Ford Motor Company managers felt they should not.
Harry F. Morton’s full story remains to be told. We lose sight of him in our research after the early 1950s. However, he now is recognized as a significant factor in shaping the climate of positive labor relations that characterizes Henry J. Kaiser’s legacy.
[i] Harry F. Morton correspondence to Edgar F. Kaiser and Clay Bedford, December 6, 1941; BANC MSS 83/42C, ctn 9, folder 12.
[ii] Speech by Harry F. Morton, in Proceedings of the 35th Annual Convention of the Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO, September 27, 1943.
[iii] The Brewster F3A was an F4U “Corsair” built by Brewster for the U.S Navy; Chance-Vought created and built the Corsair, which also was built under contract by Goodyear.
[iv] In the wake of the horrific Ludlow Massacre in the Colorado minefields of 1917, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., created a labor-management think tank that today is known as Industrial Relations Counselors, Inc. <http://www.ircounselors.org/about.html>
[v] Telegram from Harry F. Morton to Eugene Trefethen Jr., about IRC report on Fontana, October 1, 1943; BANC MSS 83/42C, ctn 19, folder 25.
[vi] Interoffice memo, Fleetwings Division of Kaiser Cargo [aviation manufacturing, Bristol, PA], from Harry F. Morton to Henry J. Kaiser in New York, January 22, 1945; BANC MSS 83/42C, ctn 151, folder 12.
I’ve seen Kaiser Permanente mature and become a role model for prepaid group practice around the country. It has proven that quality and affordability don’t have to be in conflict.
In November 2013, Kaiser Permanente said goodbye to an old friend, Mitchell W. Spellman, MD, PhD (1919-2013). Dr. Spellman was an assistant dean at the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine from 1969 to 1978; thereafter and until he retired in 1990, a dean and a professor of cardiac surgery at the Harvard Medical School. He served on the Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Health Plan Board of Directors from 1971 to 1990. His service was in his words “the most enduring professional relationship” he’d ever had.
First impressions of Kaiser Permanente
“I had moved to Los Angeles in 1969 . . . and had read that the California Medical Association was concerned about the emergence of Kaiser Permanente as a medical care system, and the newspaper played up the opposition of fee-for-service physicians to prepaid group practice, . . . it struck me as an innovative California phenomenon. In 1971, I was invited to a symposium on prepaid group practice in San Francisco sponsored by Kaiser Permanente and the Commonwealth Fund. I attended and was deeply impressed. Kaiser Permanente seemed to have found a rational solution to providing comprehensive benefits in an affordable way. A few weeks later Clifford Keene, MD, then president of Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Health Plan, asked me join the Boards of Directors. It seemed like a real adventure to me.”
By Lincoln Cushing
First in a series
How was it that Henry J. Kaiser, a successful international industrialist, became a friend of labor? Much of his position can be traced to acceptance of stronger labor legislation such as the Wagner Act of 1935, as well as to his heavy investment in government contracts.
Also, recent research has revealed the crucial influence of a previously little-known employee – Harry F. Morton.
Morton wryly and accurately described his unique position in a speech before a labor audience:
“I am a lawyer – God help me. . . Not only that but I am a lawyer who represents capital, and I am standing on a platform in a hall where there are only representatives of organized labor, and I have lived long enough to have them stand up and applaud me.”[i]
Author Stephen B. Adams noted that “Kaiser went well beyond both the spirit and the letter of the law to take a leadership role in industrial labor relations.”
Kaiser himself said in 1939: “I didn’t believe in unions at all many years ago. I wouldn’t hire union men on the job. (But) when the government decided that the men should be organized and that we should have collective bargaining, I decided I should abide by what the government wanted to do whether I agreed with it or not.”[ii]
Between the time Henry J. Kaiser helped build Grand Coulee Dam in 1938 and his death in 1967, his labor credentials became quite impressive. Examples include:
- In 1944 the wartime steel mill in Fontana, Calif., was the first basic steel-producing unit in the country to sign a union contract with the United Steelworkers of America – Congress of Industrial Organizations.
- In July 1946, the contract between the Permanente Foundation hospitals (Oakland and the Richmond Field Station) and the upstart Nurses’ Guild of Alameda County was among the first collective bargaining agreements for nurses in California.[iii]
- In 1950 the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen Union and the Pacific Maritime Association requested the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan to provide health care for all 22,500 of their workers up and down the West Coast; the plan soon covered 80 percent of members.
- In 1965, Henry J. Kaiser was the first businessman ever to receive the prestigious AFL-CIO Murray-Green award, for his achievements in health and welfare.
Harry F. Morton’s untold story
So who was Harry F. Morton? Few books or articles on Henry J. Kaiser mention him, or they do so only in passing. But recent research has revealed that he worked for Henry J. Kaiser as his labor specialist from 1936 into the early 1950s.
Documents have yielded a picture of him as a powerful negotiator with a good heart who brought Kaiser’s organization through a few minefields in the war years and earned praise all around – from his union contacts as well as his Kaiser colleagues.
Like many Americans, Morton’s own children were part of the war effort. His daughter, Myrtle, was the assistant woman’s coordinator in the Richmond Kaiser Shipyards. His son, Jack, was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Around 1936 Morton, who had been working as head of a division of the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., was approached by Henry J. Kaiser with a tax case. Kaiser was so impressed with Morton that every month for five months he tried to hire him away as his tax man, and he eventually succeeded.
Morton soon became Kaiser’s point person on labor, just as Kaiser was getting ready for the huge Grand Coulee Dam project near Spokane, Wash.
Kaiser’s conversion outlined
Kaiser, a partner in the Six Companies construction consortium, had recently finished building the mighty Hoover Dam (Boulder Dam), a project plagued by labor strife and industrial injuries. Years later, Morton gave a speech to a labor audience in which he described the situation:
“Kaiser was not always the idol of the working man. He was at one time as tough an employer as any in the United States. That is all any of them knew in the construction game. Kaiser’s people built Boulder Dam (in the early 1930s), an open shop job.
“A few years later they built Grand Coulee, the tightest closed shop job you ever saw. We spent four days in conference on the labor contract at Spokane. We sat down with the Building Trades Unions and made a contract in about three hours.
“We sat down with the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick makers, and we were there three days making that contract. The laundry workers, the operators who run the moving picture machine, the service station attendants, the store clerks – everybody at Coulee Dam belonged to a union.
“And here is the interesting thing. We did not get ‘religion’ just because we liked you people. I am speaking of management now. We learned this: The cost per yard of concrete poured at Grand Coulee was less than it was per yard of concrete in Boulder Dam.
“The cheaper job was the closed shop, the union shop. The more expensive job was the open shop job. There is your beginning and reason for us getting religion, and when we got it we went all the way.”[iv]
But as Depression-era projects wound down and World War II loomed, Morton’s career as Henry J. Kaiser’s “labor man” (his formal titles included “Permanente Legal Advisor” and “Industrial Relations Counsel”) would encompass increasingly higher profile labor issues on a national scale.
Special thanks to Lynda DeLoach, archival consultant to the National Labor College, for research assistance in this story.
Short link to this story: http://bit.ly/LPvmH7
[i] Speech by Harry F. Morton, in Proceedings of the 35th Annual Convention of the Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO, September 27, 1943.
[ii] Stephen B. Adams, Mr. Kaiser Goes to Washington
[iii] Labor news roundup, This World, October 13, 1946; “Unions here sign nurses contract,” Oakland Tribune, July 26, 1946.
[iv] Speech by Harry F. Morton, in Proceedings of the 35th Annual Convention of the Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO, September 27, 1943.
Kaiser Permanente employees across the country will head out to hundreds of community work sites today for the 2014 Martin Luther King, Jr., day of service.
All of Kaiser Permanente’s regions will participate in the volunteer work day, “A Day ON, Not a Day OFF,” first launched by the health organization in 2005.
The Heritage Resources team, based in Oakland, Calif., will participate in a project to improve the Novato Youth Center in nearby Novato.
At right, Nancy Mahoney, long-time Kaiser Permanente employee, waters the newly planted vegetables in Urban Tilth’s Butterfly Garden. Mahoney was a volunteer at last year’s MLK day project at Richmond Greenway gardens sponsored by Urban Tilth in Richmond, Calif.
In the fall of 1944, Americans were looking forward to the end of World War II. The staff at Fore’N’Aft, the Kaiser Richmond Shipyards’ employee newsletter, could daydream of a bright and shiny future for themselves when the shipyards were no longer needed.
A new world could be created in what had been bay and mudflats a few years before — one with ample modern housing and permanent commercial buildings.
Leland Hyde, a graphic artist, drew up plans (shown above) for a futuristic city on the site. The “dream city” featured sweeping boulevards, highrise buildings interspersed with parks and a super-efficient freeway on the bay. The Marina Bay development partially fulfilled Hyde’s dream. But luckily the bay restoration and trail project supplanted the plan for an ultra-modern freeway.
In January of 2013, volunteers turned out in force at the Richmond Greenway gardens for a Martin Luther King, Jr., work day sponsored by Urban Tilth of Richmond, Calif.
At left, community artists participated by putting the finishing touches on an oversized portrait of Jesus “Chuy” Vargas, a leading grower on the Richmond Greenway.
This year’s MLK volunteer day is next Monday, Jan. 20, and thousands will give up their day to participate in many projects across the nation.